‘Self-realisation’- What is it?

Many of us have heard of the term but might be a bit confused as to what it actually means. A potential reason for confusion is that ‘self-realisation’ has very different meanings, depending on whether you are coming to the term from a common Western understanding or from an Oriental/Eastern understanding.

The Western definition has been influenced by Western psychoanalysis. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines ‘self-realisation’ as ‘the fact of using your skills and abilities and achieving as much as you can possibly achieve.’ From this definition it is clear that ‘self-realisation’ is constrained within the bounds of the personality and a sense of doing and achieving.

In contrast, Oriental/Eastern spiritual traditions invite us to go beyond the realms of the personality and we can see that ‘Self-realisation’ is much more about b e i n g than doing or achieving.

In Advaita Vedanta, (considered the pearl of Indian philosophy), there is an immortal, immutable aspect that exists in every object of creation- human beings and animals, as well as inanimate objects. This aspect is called ‘atman’ or the ‘transcendental Self’. Advaita Vedanta goes on to say that the Self is ‘Brahman’ – the ultimate reality or God.

Buddhism too, invites us to awaken to this deeper reality. In both traditions, in knowing the ‘true nature of reality’ or ‘realising the Self’ we realise that there is no separation between anyone and anything- everything is One. Just as the wave is never separate from the ocean, we are all individual expressions of the divine.

In the words of Kahlil Gibran, from ‘The Prophet‘:

And a man said, Speak to us of Self-Knowledge.
And he answered, saying:
Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and the nights.
But your ears thirst for the sound of your heart’s knowledge.

You would know in words that which you have always know in thought.
You would touch with your fingers the naked body of your dreams.

And it is well you should.
The hidden well-spring of your soul must needs rise and run murmuring to the sea;
And the treasure of your infinite depths would be revealed to your eyes.
But let there be no scales to weigh your unknown treasure;
And seek not the depths of your knowledge with staff or sounding line.
For self is a sea boundless and measureless

Image by Kahlil Gibran, ‘The Prophet’.

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